The Cubs failed miserably in their last attempt to acquire a former Tampa Bay Ray for the express purpose of mashing lefty pitching, but you know what they say about what to do if at first you don’t succeed. With José Martinez looking like a non-tender candidate, Jed Hoyer might want to consider pursuing 28-year-old Hunter Renfroe to fill that spot. Renfroe was just DFA’d by Tampa in order to clear space for younger players on the 40-man roster and fits nicely with what the Cubs need.
Scouting the box score isn’t going to get you very excited about the outfielder, who played just the one abbreviated season with the Rays after coming over from San Diego as part of the Tommy Pham trade. Renfroe’s numbers — an anemic .156 average with 8 homers, a .277 wOBA, and 76 wRC+ — were markedly worse than the man he’d ostensibly replacing, or at least splitting time with, in left field.
But since speculation continues to mount that Kyle Schwarber will be either traded or non-tendered, there’s reason to believe the Cubs will look for cheaper replacements in the corner. They’ll also be trying to improve on a lineup that managed a pathetic 73 wRC+ against lefties, better than only the Mariners (72) and Rangers (65) this past season.
Despite what looks like pretty awful production, Renfroe posted a 116 wRC+ and .335 wOBA in 51 plate appearances against southpaws this season and carries respective career marks of 137 and .335 over 495 PAs. The real killer for him in 2020 was an absurdly low .043 BABIP that was easily the lowest in MLB (min. 50 PAs) and speaks to some incredibly bad luck. Coming anywhere near his .252 career mark, which is still pretty low, would have boosted his stats a great deal.
Though he’s not a Gold Glover by any stretch, Renfroe has acquitted himself well in both corner outfield spots and actually put up 23 defensive runs saved (14 in RF, 7 in LF, 2 in CF) over 998 innings for the Padres in 2019. He was at a -1 over 285 innings in right this past season, though the combination of that and the offensive futility makes you wonder whether he simply struggled to adjust to everything between the new team and the shutdown.
Given his historical results, weird timing, bad luck, and overall athleticism, there’s reason to believe Renfroe can get back to solid production again in the field and at the plate. To wit, his 2020 sprint speed of 27.3 ft/sec last season was 29th among all players who logged time in right field and would have put him seventh overall on the Cubs. In fact, he was actually a wee bit faster than either Ian Happ (27.1) or Jason Heyward (27.0).
The one real issue here is that Renfroe is arbitration-eligible in 2021 and is projected to earn around $3.6 million after getting $3 million in 2020. He’s under control for three more seasons, though, and he might be willing to do a team-friendly deal. Even for a team that hasn’t paid a position player that much per season in free agency since Jon Jay got $8 million in 2017, the cost makes a ton of sense if he’s replacing Schwarber.
If the Cubs are actually intending to compete, they’d keep Schwarber and just have Renfroe platoon at the corners. Schwarber has a career 75 wRC+ against lefties and Heyward is at just 78 after putting up an atrocious 54 in what was otherwise his best offensive season as a Cub. Having a guy who can capably play both corners while shoring up offensive weakness would be the perfect move for a team looking to do something other than slash payroll.